Setting performance standards


In previous columns, I have discussed actions a manager should take when an employee does something wrong. But how do you ensure employees do something right? Writing and communicating effective performance standards and plans for employees can go a long way in developing a stellar workforce.

A well-structured performance plan outlines the expectations you have of a position. If an employee turns out to be a poor performer, his or her inability to live up to these standards protects your legal liability when adverse personnel action must be taken.

There are basic legal guidelines to follow in developing performance standards and plans. The Office of Personnel Management’s Web site on performance management,, is a good resource.

According to Title 5 of the U.S. Code, performance standards must meet several criteria to be considered valid:

*First, standards must be reasonable. This means that a standard for acceptable performance should be achievable by any employee qualified to do the job. Standards should identify exactly what an employee is to accomplish and how well the employee must perform the task. For example, say you are managing a secretary. A good performance standard might state that the secretary is expected to develop and maintain accurate files on a weekly basis. This establishes the task at hand — to update the files — and specifies the requirements for positive performance — correctness of the files and frequency with which they are updated. A bad performance standard would fail to provide a measurement for success.

*Second, standards must be clearly communicated. Section 4302 of Title 5 states that agencies must “communicate to each employee the performance standards and the critical elements of the employee’s position” at the beginning of each appraisal period. This is where the performance plan comes into play.

Every employee should get a performance plan at the beginning of the rating year. The plan should comprise the performance standards by which the employee will be evaluated.

I find it effective to maintain written performance plans in the employee’s personnel file. Also, reviewing a hard copy with the employee can go a long way in establishing effective communication.

The number of performance standards included in a plan will depend on the position. Higher-grade positions require more standards than lower-grade positions, but managers should keep the number of standards reasonable so they can actually be attained.

Some positions may require that performance standards be quantifiable, but that will depend on the job description and the agency’s mission. If you are an air traffic controller, it would be reasonable for your performance standards to indicate that your error rate should be as low as possible.

Governmentwide regulations mandate that performance plans include at least one critical job element. Managers must identify in the performance plan which elements are considered critical. A critical element is a task, function, process or duty so crucial to the position that the failure to perform it would justify a poor performance rating. An employee’s failure to perform a critical element at a satisfactory level would justify removal, demotion or reassignment. Plans can also include noncritical elements, which are tasks or duties that, while important, are not essential to the successful performance of the position.

Returning to our secretary, whose job is to draft correspondence, a critical job element would be the ability to use a computer. A noncritical element may be the ability to use a dictation machine if this device is used only occasionally.

*Third, performance plans must explain the job elements and standards by which an employee will be evaluated. Standards should be positive — they should state the level of performance you want to see, not the standards you don’t want to see. For example, a standard for our secretary that says faxes should not be given to you a day later than received would be backwards. Instead, say a fax should be delivered within an hour of its arrival.

Greg Rinckey, a former military and federal attorney, is managing partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC, a law firm with offices in Albany, N.Y., and Washington. E-mail your legal questions to


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